I have seen more loss, grief and death over the last year than any previous year of ministry. With that in mind, consider what follows as an open letter to all of you I have walked with during these last months and also encouragement to those of you whom I may or may not know personally, but still, my heart is with you…
It’s safe to say that there was time when you did not consider you would feel this way at this moment. You didn’t expect to be grieving. You didn’t expect to feel such loss.
You didn’t expect to have a big, empty space inside of you while we enter the season that emphasizes great cheer. You have questions too – questions that you might not ask aloud, but they still haunt your heart…
“When will this ‘new normal’ they talk about begin?”
“Will I ever breathe without this lump in my throat and the ache in my chest?”
“Will I truly laugh again?”
I wish I could give you counsel and wisdom that would assuage all your pain and heal your heart, but I cannot offer such gifts. All I can give is a few things that I, a fellow traveler on a road of grief and loss, have learned over the last few years. These truths have not eliminated the hurt, but they have provided some clarity and perspective that make a bit more sense of the journey and bring some hope to a soul longing for the light.
Death, grief and pain are common, but not natural.
Being a lead pastor and having served on church staff for a number of years, I am often in the company of death and suffering. Many times, when someone tries to offer encouragement to others, these phrases are used…
“Death is a natural part of life.”
“Pain is just natural, so we must learn to deal with it.”
“It’s natural to experience suffering.”
Those all sound quite pat and are accepted adages, but they are not accurate statements. Suffering, hurt and the end of life are common, yes. These things occur regularly. They afflict all who draw breath at some point in time. That is part of living as a human. But they are not natural. In other words, just because it happens to all, does not mean it is supposed to happen at all.
The plan was for humanity to live in perfect relationship and fellowship with God himself for eternity. We were fashioned for that reality. When sin entered the world, death and suffering entered as well (Romans 5:12). As a result of the corruption of perfection, we know that something about human pain is not right at all. It is unnatural. That is one reason it hurts us so deeply: it is not the way it is supposed to be.
God, in his mercy, sent Adam and Eve from the Garden after sin came into the world thus ensuring their physical deaths. We can say rightly that this was an act of mercy, because had they remained in the sinful state and continued to eat of the Tree of Life, they would have lived forever separated from God (Genesis 3:21-22). Though unnatural, our physical death became a means by which God could reunite us with himself through the sacrifice of Christ. It’s common, and it’s a hard mercy, but it is not natural.
Grief is a personal process.
Often someone will say to the grieving person, “I know exactly how you feel.” That is a wonderful sentiment, usually offered as a statement to show empathy on the part of the speaker, but even then, the statement is not truly accurate. A person may know the same type of feeling and may have experienced something very similar, but no one knows exactly how you feel in your pain. It is impossible to do so.
You hold specific memories and enjoyed experiences with your departed loved one that no one else had, so your loss is highly specific to you.
There were moments of your lost relationship or ended marriage that are burned into your heart and mind that you sort through personally.
Your secret pain belongs to you; no matter how many have walked similar roads, the individual twists and bends are unique to your journey.
The Psalmist was no stranger to personal pain. “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins” (Psalm 25:16-18). Notice how pointedly individualistic the suffering is for him: “my heart,” “my distresses,” “my affliction” and “my trouble.” Might I remind you that this is recorded in the Bible itself and evidence that the people of God are not immune from pain.
Grief is common, but not natural; grief is not general, but personal.
It is also a process. You don’t get better overnight. Jeremiah penned the raw words, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (Jeremiah 15:18). It’s personal (‘my pain,” “my wound”), but also a process that he feels has no end. There indeed is a “time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). The process of grief is a process of healing. To rush along is to rob oneself of the wholeness built along the way.
Like you, I have heard people at times say, “Cheer up! You have so many things going for you! Stop grieving; you should just have your hope in Jesus!” Every time I hear someone say things like that to me or others, I think of the proverb, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Proverbs 25:20). It’s foolish to take off a coat on a cold day, irritating or even painful to take the coat from someone else and leave them freezing, and vinegar poured on baking soda fizzes and bubbles but accomplishes little. Essentially, when we encourage someone to ignore genuine grief, we leave the person chilled with meaningless words.
Grief. Takes. Time. Give it the time it takes.
God is not indifferent.
Psalm 77 has been my default passage when I feel forgotten by God. The raw and unabashed honesty of the writer in his state of grief stands as a minor monument to the reality of suffering in our lives. “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Psalm 77:7-9). In your suffering, it is easy to believe that God has misplaced you or overlooked your plight, or worse still, that he sees you in your pain and has decided to remain inactive.
But God is not indifferent to human suffering. I am reminded of John 11. When Jesus visits the tomb of Lazarus, he weeps. Now why did he weep, knowing that he planned to raise his friend from the dead? Certainly, given the earlier conversations with his disciples, it was in his plan to allow the death of Lazarus in order to show his power over the grave. But weeping? The reality of hope does not erase the sting of grief. Even God understands that.
God knows where you are.
God loves you.
And God offers genuine concern when his children hurt, just as any good father would. Scripture points to the hard reality that we mourn, and shows us that comfort will come (Matthew 5:4), and God will bring that comfort.
Perhaps the hardest part of grief, regardless of the season, is the next hour. Each day seems to be unending. Grief nearly suspends time, slowing it to a crawl, and then extracts a moment-by-moment toll. “Those who sow in tears, shall reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5). That is the difficult thing: sowing in tears. You sow to reap; you reap to eat. No sowing means no survival.
Despite your grief, you go shopping, buy groceries, clean your home, wash your clothes, go to work, make dinner and do the hundreds of different things that you must do in life. These are things that may have never seemed to be burdens before, but now, in the pain, they seem like Herculean tasks.
You sow in tears.
And those around you carry on with their own lives, busy with their own trouble and seemingly oblivious to your hurt. You might want cry out, “Don’t you know that things are not OK? Can’t you see the pain?” Suffering is an isolating experience. Psalm 88:18 reads, “Darkness has become my only companion.” The closest thing to you in hurt is the darkness, yet you want to articulate the grief to someone.
You just keep sowing. And keep crying. But the promise for a time of reaping remains.
A time will come when things are better. All things will be set right on the day that Jesus removes all our pain for good. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). That will be a time of the greatest harvest of all.
But maybe you don’t have to wait until then. Perhaps you will “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). In God’s perfect timing, little by little, you’ll find your smile again, even if it seems hopelessly lost right now. Joy will come, even after great darkness. That wound you have may never be erased permanently here, but even the scar will speak of the grace given to you.
Will you ever be the same again?
No. You’ll be different. The loss will always be there in some way.
Your memories will still be bittersweet, but maybe just a bit sweeter with each passing season.
Keep sowing, even in your tears, and wait for the joy of the harvest.
(For those mourning the loss of a loved one at this time of year, this video offers some heartfelt encouragement: click here)